“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage—to move in the opposite direction.” You’ve probably heard or read that quote before. It’s usually attributed to Albert Einstein because, well … nobody really knows why. It actually came from British economist E.F. Schumacher. Specifically, it came from a collection of essays entitled Small is Beautiful, where he suggests that giants really aren’t as powerful as the Davids of the world.
Box Nova owners can identify with that. Though conceived to stem the tide of imports that threatened to take a slice of the Big Three’s pie, compacts like the Chevy II and Nova earned a spot among enthusiasts early on. In a stroke of genius forethought, the Big Three designed their respective versions to accommodate V-8 engines. It was the ultimate expression of the hot rod axiom about stuffing the biggest engine into the lightest car, and enthusiasts were quick to pick up on it. Bill Thomas even sold a kit to jam a V-8 into a Chevy II within a year of the model hitting the dealer floors.
In light of its diminutive stature, the Chevy II/Nova sort of begs to be built simple. It’s a modest car to begin, and adding features merely adds to the cost and weight. But how does one build a simple car that stands out?
Here’s Butch Merrill’s proposal. Yeah, his ’66 looks pretty simple because, well … it is. But don’t confuse simple with ordinary. It even started as a pretty exceptional car. “A lady in town was selling it and she was the second owner,” he begins. “It was in all original condition with original paint and interior.” A 283/Powerglide car from birth, it survived nearly half a century with only a few nicks and dings.
If the Nova has a true shortcoming it’s the front suspension. It has a miserable camber curve, brake options suck, and the spring towers impose on the engine bay. So Merrill swapped it out for a Heidts bolt-on subframe. Brian Sells at Redline Race Cars in Longview, Washington, fabricated the triangulated four-link rear suspension for the Dutchman 9-inch housing. A 3.55:1 cog on a limited-slip gear carrier spins 31-spline Dutchman axles. Both ends sport Aldan coilover dampers and Wilwood four-pot calipers on 12-inch rotors.
To drive home the power-to-weight point, Merrill assembled a 383 with a Scat crank, Eagle rods, and JE pistons. With the 65cc chambers in the AFR Eliminator heads the compression works out to 10.5:1. He went a little raggedy with the cam, a COMP Cams Xtreme Energy XR280R mechanical roller unit. With a 650-cfm Quick Fuel Technology carburetor on an Edelbrock RPM Air-Gap manifold and a set of 1 3/4-inch TCI Engineering headers, the engine made 536 hp just north of 6,000 rpm and 490 lb-ft of torque just shy of 5,000 rpm.
Merrill dressed out the rest of the engine with an Edelbrock water pump, a March serpentine accessory drive system, and a mechanical fan behind a Be Cool radiator. The headers lead to 3-inch pipes and Spintech mufflers. Bolted to the other end of the engine is a Muncie M22 transmission, aka the “Rock Crusher,” due to the growly sound its low-pitch teeth on its gears make. In classic form it wears a Hurst shifter.
The aftermarket cowl-induction hood and some shaved trim withstanding, the exterior remains pretty much stock. But he took the car to legendary customizer Donn Lowe in Oregon City, Oregon, for a few tricks beneath the surface.
Rather than flatten the firewall entirely, Lowe merely filled and smoothed it. Part of the beauty of these clip conversions is the elimination of the spring pockets. But the commercially available replacement inner front fender panels look like Paris Hilton: a bit plain and as flat as a board. So Lowe made some with character, like a stock-like shelf just inboard the fender and a pocket to accommodate the hood hinges. He also louvered them to give heated cooling air another path out of the engine bay. The Zolatone trunk finish hides the mini tubs. Curtis Hancock in Longview shot the worked-over body in Axalta’s version of the car’s original color: Willow Green Poly.
The incredibly intact nature of the car inspired Merrill to restore rather than customize the interior. He installed a whole upholstery suite from Classic Industries. But before he put it in he replaced the steering assembly with an ididit tilt column and a Billet Specialties Chicayne wheel. He also installed a Kenwood head unit and hid an MB Quart speaker set in the package tray. The Vintage Air heater takes up less space and churns out way more heat, another exercise in efficiency. To maintain the somewhat stock appearance, Merrill preserved the original harness. However, to make it better fit the car’s new personality he separated the looms and wove new wires in there.
The rollers consist of Billet Specialties Chicaynes and Kumho Ecsta MX tires. The wheels measure 17x7 with a 4-inch backspace (front) and 17x9.5 with a 3.5-inch backspace (rear). The front tires measure 215/45. The 70mm (almost 3-inch) difference between the front and rear (285/40) tires matches the rim width difference almost perfectly, something that maintains the same sidewall bulge. The half-point-lower aspect ratio makes the rear tires come in a tiny bit more than an inch taller than the fronts (as opposed to 2.5 inches taller if they had the same aspect ratio as the front). These are some of the insider tricks that preserve proportions and prevent comically extreme tire staggers front to rear. Again, all in the name of simplicity. The wheels themselves stand out enough on their own after all.
Is Butch Merrill’s ’66 Nova smaller and simpler? Compared to even the midsize iron of the era, you bet it is. But don’t confuse that with weak or ordinary. It takes a whole lot more effort to make something small and simple extraordinary. Specifically, it takes a touch of genius … and a lot of courage.